Supreme Court Limits "Policing for Profit" in All 50 States

By Paul Gaita 02/27/19

Though SCOTUS' decision is groundbreaking, it will not bring civil asset forfeiture to an end. 

a gavel in the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruled unanimously that civil asset forfeiture—the practice of imposing fines, including the seizure of money or property believed to be connected to criminal activity—is limited by the U.S. Constitution, and will grant individuals their day in court to fight for their rights.

All nine Supreme Court Justices backed the landmark ruling on February 20 on the basis of the Eighth Amendment, which bars the federal government from imposing excessive fines, while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the 14th Amendment, which applied the same rules to states after the Civil War, as precedents for their decision.

Their ruling will not end civil forfeiture, but will allow those who are subjected to the practice to argue that such fines exceed the charges that prompted it.

Civil forfeiture is among the most contentious law enforcement practices in the U.S., and one of the least regulated. In a typical case, prosecutors will accuse an individual of wrongdoing and then seize their personal assets—everything from money and vehicles to homes and businesses—that they believe have a connection to the crime.

Law enforcement seizes the property and is allowed to keep the profits because the seizure is enforced through a civil proceeding, which as Slate noted, has fewer legal safeguards than a criminal trial. 

Without said safeguards, police are allowed to seize property from individuals with even the slightest tangential connection to a crime; Slate, High Times and the New York Times cite the case of 72-year-old Ella Bromell, whose home was subjected to forfeiture and foreclosure by the city of Conway, South Carolina because drug deals took place on her property—deals which she personally fought to stop. 

Though actual figures are difficult to determine, the practice can be extremely lucrative for law enforcement: a report from the Department of Justice found that state and local agencies earned $400 million from civil forfeiture in 2018, and the New York Police Department alone brought in nearly $8 million from the practice.

State and local agencies have balked at reducing forfeitures, claiming that it allows them to pay for essential equipment. But as the Institute for Justice noted, it rarely results in a criminal conviction. Just 13% of forfeitures were linked to a conviction.

The Supreme Court's decision came as a result of hearing Timbs v. Indiana, which involved Indiana resident Tyson Timbs, who pled guilty to selling heroin in 2015. He was sentenced to a year of house arrest and time in a drug dependency treatment program, as well as $1,203 in fines.

The state of Indiana later seized Timbs' Land Rover, which it alleged had been used in the drug deals. The value of the vehicle was placed at $42,000—approximately four times the amount of the maximum fine for such a charge. Timbs fought back, citing the excessive fines in the Eighth Amendment. The Indiana Supreme Court disagreed, claiming that SCOTUS had never incorporated that clause as part of the 14th Amendment. 

Writing for eight of the justices, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment "overwhelmingly" applied to the 14th Amendment. She also cited Harmelin v. Michigan as an example of fines being imposed for "retribution and deterrence," and highlighted the history of excessive fines against African-Americans, beginning with rules imposed by Southern states against freed slaves in the wake of the Civil War.

Though SCOTUS' decision is groundbreaking, it will not bring forfeiture to an end.

"People are still going to lose their property without being convicted of a crime, they're going to have their property seized," said Wesley P. Hottot, a lawyer with the Institute of Justice to the New York Times. "The new thing is that they can now say at the end of it all, whether I'm guilty or not, I can argue that it was excessive."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.